Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oh Writer Where Art Thou?

One of my favorite movies is "O Brother Where Art Thou?" by the Coen Brothers. It is based on Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, but is set in the deep south during the the Great Depression. The reason I bring it up is related to my manuscript but first let me give you the set up. For those of you who have never seen it, in the movie, George Clooney (Everett), John Turturro (Pete), and Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar) play escaped prisoners who are out to retrieve a hidden treasure. Along the way, 3 beautiful women (sirens) singing and washing their laundry by the river's edge, seduce the 3 men with liquor. When Everett and Delmar wake up, they find Pete is gone, and all that is left is his clothes and a large toad within them. So here is the scene from the movie:



So I am reviewing all the comments that Da Man has given me on my manuscript, most of which are incredibly helpful and wonderful catches. Towards the latter half of my story, the hero and his group discover a beautiful spot where heavenly maidens bathe and frolic by jade green pools deep in a mountain valley and the maidens inform my MC of the treasure he must find. On the paragraph after this scene Da Man had written the comment "We thought you was a toad!" I just about bust a gut laughing. It reminded me of how well he knows me that he knew I would find that hysterical. But it also reminded me of how many references and nods to other books can be found in most people's writings. While I don't think my book is completely derivative, it cannot help but have similarities with so many quest based novels.

If you look at Harry Potter or even the Chronicles of Narnia, you can see alot of concepts that are similar to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and look how successful these books have been. Eragon has been criticized as having the same plotline as Star Wars but told through the same world of the LOTR. And yet Hollywood even made a movie based on it (not a good movie, but still). Similarities occur everywhere, and what might be derivative to one reader may be fresh and new to another. For example, older readers criticized Eragon for being a hodge-podge of stolen plotlines and concepts from better novels. Yet young readers were opened to a new world of fantasy they had never seen before. And surely the success of the trilogy, speaks for itself.

If someone were to make a similar comparison to my novel, they might call it an Asian based LOTR. But would this be an accurate analysis of my book? I would hope not. I would hope that my creative East Asian mythlore take on the old "quest" devise would give it a completely new spin. I would hope my execution is what will keep it interesting and fresh and so very different from Tolkien's world. And yet to have your work compared to Tolkien would be an ultimate compliment. One that could bring a similarly themed book to a new audience.

But at the end of the day, it is hard to know what interpretations a reader will bring to your book. I would never have thought my YA Asian historical novel would raise similarities to "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" but that is the correlation Da Man saw. Was it a good thing or bad thing? I'm not sure. But I can only hope, that when the last page is turned, and the book is finally put down, that whatever interpretations were made added to the reader's enjoyment of the book.

22 comments:

Merry Monteleone said...

There's nothing new underneath the sun.

There are a finite number of plots, really every story you can think up can be compared to something else, with different twists and turns maybe, but the same themes or motion... I think it's all in the voice and characters... if you can make them real, then even if the story echos a classic it becomes an ode to the work that came before, rather than an imitation.

Lisa said...

Of course -- it may be more sophisticated to note that your story has elements that are an homage to Homer's Odyssey, as opposed to the Coen Brothers' movie ;)

laughingwolf said...

good points, ello... look fwd to a good read :)

preTzel said...

Correlations are always drawn towards a writer's work and most times we have to just brush it off and understand that if they are HUGE fans of LOTR, CoN, or HP then their going to find similarities but also find enough differences to be HUGE fans of our own work too.

Precie said...

Ditto what merry said. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I think the kind of example you use here, of Da Man recognizing a similarity to the movie, is actually enriching for the reader. Our readers aren't blank slates so there is no way to control where their minds might take them with your manuscript. I don't think it's a problem, certainly. I also don't think you can avoid it.

strugglingwriter said...

I LOVE "O Brother Where Art Thou". In fact, I may watch it tonight.

Yeah, there aren't any new ideas out there. People will bring themselves to you book which will affect how they interpret it.

I agree with what Charles said.

Conduit said...

Really, what you're talking about is the Monomyth, or Hero's Journey. I've not read Eragon, but if anyone who complains that it mirrors the Star Wars plot is lacking in some storytelling fundamentals, as well as Star Wars knowledge.

Basically, Star Wars is a regurgitation of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, with two robots taking the place of the two 'fools' from whose perspective the Kurosawa movie is played out. But in turn, The Hidden Fortress is merely another working out of the Hero's Journey, as is Homer's Odyssey. As is LOTR, Spider-Man, Dirty Harry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and just about any story that features a heroic figure facing any kind of adversity.

I wouldn't worry about someone picking up a refrence - in fact, I think readers enjoy those moments when they catch a respectful nod to another story they know. After all, the girls singing that beautiful (but very, very creepy - have you ever thought about the meaning of the lyrics?) song as they wash their clothes are merely the sirens luring the sailors to their doom on the rocks.

Steve Malley said...

Sounds like a really cool story!

Larramie said...

LOtR, huh? Nothing like reaching for that ultimate brass ring, Ello!

Sustenance Scout said...

LOVE that movie, Ello! Talk about a classic, lol! K.

ChrisEldin said...

I can't even read the post because I'm staring at the beautiful and mysterious lady in the photo.

LOVE it!! Are you going to use that photo in your avatar? What about the dancing pig? I love that too.

I need time to reflect on all these changes...
:-)

writtenwyrdd said...

You should read Joseph Campbell, who talks about these heroic themes in many of his works. George Lucas even based Star Wars on Campbell's work about the heroic cycle. The themes work in stories because they are universal themes. Nothing wrong with having them; it's doing it well.

Which brings me to disagree with you about Eragon. It is junky writing. No matter that it sells, no matter that it did turn some younger readers on to the genre, Eragon and the sequels are total junk. And this is not because they are derivative; it's because they are badly written. Taking plot elements from something else is done allt he time. You cannot help but see the glaring similarities and feel as if your nose is being rubbed in it. I mean, just look at the names he uses for the characters. Eragon...Aragorn. Et cetera.

Melissa Marsh said...

Interesting post, Ell. And I love "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" One of my favorite lines: "How's my hair?"

Angela Williams Duea said...

I'm right with those commenters who mention the monomysth and Joseph Campbell. These are ancient plots that can still be fresh today. Think how many times they'ver redone the Romeo and Juliet, or Galatea (My Fair Lady) plots?

Mary Witzl said...

I LOVE O Brother, Where Art Thou? I liked the sound track so much my husband bought it for me, and we sing along to it all the time, sometimes even in harmony. I'd have loved that toad comment too.

I'm crazy about Mark Twain, but even he borrowed from others. There is a scene in Huckleberry Twain that is so similar to one in Charles Reade's 'The Cloister and the Hearth' (one of my favorite books) that I really wondered if he hadn't borrowed it. Turns out that he did, but so what? Huckleberry Finn is totally different from The Cloister and the Hearth. Twain made the scene into something entirely unique.

Travis Erwin said...

And the soundtrack is great as well.

The Anti-Wife said...

Loved that movie.

Kappa no He said...

Your YA novel sounds intriguing! And what a sweet thing for Da Man to notice and write.

Carleen Brice said...

Aw see...*I* was gonna say there's nothing new under the sun. And just to prove that point, Merry beat me to it!

Danette Haworth said...

Under the blazing orb, we search but our eyes find only that which we already know.

Oh wait, Merry already said that.

Mom In Scrubs said...

OBWAT? is one of my all-time favorites! I've read The Odyssey several times, and never get tired of spins on the theme. In fact, I find pleasure in being able to find the similarities - it gives me (and some other readers also, I imagine) a feeling of being "in the know," or even intellectually superior. As egotistical as that may sound, it's a vice that I sometimes indulge and enjoy.